Music of Puerto Rico

Music of Puerto Rico
General topics
Related articles
Nationalistic and patriotic songs
National anthem La Borinqueña
Regional music

The music of Puerto Rico has evolved as a heterogeneous and dynamic product of diverse cultural resources. The most conspicuous musical sources have been Spain and West Africa, although many aspects of Puerto Rican music reflect origins elsewhere in Europe and the Caribbean and, in the last century, the USA. Puerto Rican music culture today comprises a wide and rich variety of genres, ranging from essentially indigenous genres like bomba to recent hybrids like reggaeton. Broadly conceived, the realm of "Puerto Rican music" should naturally comprise the music culture of the millions of people of Puerto Rican descent who have lived in the mainland USA (and Hawaii), and especially in New York City. Their music, from salsa to the boleros of Rafael Hernández, cannot be separated from music culture of Puerto Rico itself. Nevertheless, this entry will emphasize music culture as it has flourished on the island; readers should naturally consult other entries for genres like salsa (most commonly thought of).

Early music

Music culture in Puerto Rico during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries is poorly documented. Certainly it included Spanish church music, military band music, and diverse genres of dance music cultivated by the jíbaros (peasants, of mixed race) and enslaved Africans and their descendants. While these later never constituted more than 11% of the island's population, they contributed some of the island's most dynamic musical features becoming distinct indeed.

In the 19th century Puerto Rican music begins to emerge into historical daylight, with notated genres like danza being naturally better documented than folk genres like jíbaro music and bomba y plena.

The African people of the island used drums made of carved harwood covered with an untreated rawhide on one side, commonly made from goatskin. A popular word derived from creole to design this drum was shukbwa, that literally means 'trunk of tree'

Folk music

If the term "folk music" is taken to mean music genres that have flourished without elite support, and have evolved independently of the commercial mass media, the realm of Puerto Rican folk music would comprise the primarily Hispanic-derived jíbaro music, the Afro-Puerto Rican bomba, and the essentially "creole" plena. As these three genres evolved in Puerto Rico and are unique to that island, they occupy a respected place in island culture, even if they are not currently as popular as contemporary musics like salsa or reggaeton.

Jíbaro music

Jibaros are small farmers of primarily Hispanic descent—constituted the overwhelming majority of the Puerto Rican population until the mid-twentieth century. They are traditionally recognized as romantic icons of land cultivation, hard work and self-sufficiency, hospitality, and love of song and dance.{{[1]}} Their instruments[2] were relatives of the Spanish vihuela, especially the cuatro—which evolved from four single strings to five pairs[3]—and the lesser known tiple.[4] A typical jíbaro group nowadays might feature a cuatro, guitar, and percussion instrument such as the güiro scraper and/or bongo. Lyrics to jíbaro music are generally in the décima form, consisting of ten octosyllabic lines in the rhyme scheme abba, accddc. Décima form derives from 16th-century Spain. Although it has largely died out in that country (except the Canaries), it took root in various places in Latin America—especially Cuba and Puerto Rico—where it is sung in diverse styles. A sung décima might be pre-composed, derived from a publication by some literati, or ideally, improvised on the spot, especially in the form of a “controversia” in which two singer-poets trade witty insults or argue on some topic. In between the décimas, lively improvisations can be played on the cuatro. This music form is also known as "Tipica" as well as "Tropica".

The décimas are sung to stock melodies, with standardized cuatro accompaniment patterns. About twenty such song-types are in common use. These are grouped into two broad categories, viz., seis (e.g., seis fajardeño, seis chorreao) and aguinaldo (e.g., aguinaldo orocoveño, aguinaldo cayeyano). Traditionally, the seis could accompany dancing, but this tradition has largely died out except in tourist shows and festivals. The aguinaldo is most characteristically sung during the Christmas season, when groups of revelers (parrandas) go from house to house, singing jíbaro songs and partying. The aguinaldo texts are generally not about Christmas, and also unlike Anglo-American Christmas carols, they are generally sung by a solo with the other revelers singing chorus. In general, Christmas season is a time when traditional music—both seis and aguinaldo—is most likely to be heard. Fortunately, many groups of Puerto Ricans are dedicated to preserving traditional music by continued practice.

Jíbaro music came to be marketed on commercial recordings in the twentieth century, and singer-poets like Ramito (Flor Morales Ramos, 1915–90) are well documented. However, jíbaros themselves were becoming an endangered species, as agribusiness and urbanization have drastically reduced the numbers of small farmers on the island. Many jíbaro songs dealt accordingly with the vicissitudes of migration to New York. Jíbaro music has in general declined accordingly, although it retains its place in local culture, especially around Christmas time and special social gatherings, and there are many cuatro players, some of whom have cultivated prodigious virtuosity.


Historical references indicate that by the decades around 1800 plantation slaves were cultivating a music and dance genre called bomba. By the mid-twentieth century, when it started to be recorded and filmed, bomba was performed in regional variants in various parts of the island, especially Loíza, Ponce, San Juan, and Mayagüez. It is not possible to reconstruct the history of bomba; various aspects reflect Congolese derivation, though some elements (as suggested by subgenre names like holandés) have clearly come from elsewhere in the Caribbean. French Caribbean elements are particularly evident in the bomba style of Mayagüez, and striking choreographic parallels can be seen with the bélé of Martinique. All of these sources were blended into a unique sound that reflects the life of the Jibaro, the slaves, and the culture of Puerto Rico.

In its call-and-response singing set to ostinato-based rhythms played on two or three squat drums (barriles), bomba resembles other neo-African genres in the Caribbean. Of clear African provenance is its format in which a single person emerges from an informal circle of singers to dance in front of the drummers, engaging the lead drummer in a sort of playful duel; after dancing for a while, that person is then replaced by another. While various such elements can be traced to origins in Africa or elsewhere, bomba must be regarded as a local Afro-Puerto Rican creation. Its rhythms (e.g. seis corrido, yubá, leró, etc.), dance moves, and song lyrics that sometimes mimic farm animals(in Spanish, with some French creole words in eastern Puerto Rico) collectively constitute a unique Puerto Rican genre.

In the 1950s, the dance-band ensemble of Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera performed several original songs which they labelled as "bombas"; although these bore some similarities to the sicá style of bomba, in their rhythms and horn arrangements they also borrowed noticeably from the Cuban dance music which had long been popular in the island. Giving rise to Charanga music. As of the 1980s, bomba had declined, although it was taught, in a somewhat formalized fashion, by the Cepeda family in Santurce, San Juan, and was still actively performed informally, though with much vigor, in the Loíza towns, home to then Ayala family dynasty of bomberos. Bomba continues to survive there, and has also experienced something of a revival, being cultivated by folkoric groups such as Son Del Batey, Los Rebuleadores de San Juan, Bomba Evolución, Abrane y La Tribu and many more else where in the island. In New York City with groups such as Los Pleneros de la 21, members of La Casita de Chema, and Alma Moyo . In Chicago Buya, and Afro Caribe have kept the tradition alive and evolving. In California Bomba Liberte, Bombalele, and Los Bomberas de la Bahia are all groups that have promoted and preserved the culture. Women have also played a role in its revival, as in the case of the all-female group Yaya, Legacy Woman, Los Bomberas de la Bahia, Grupo Bambula (Originally female group) and Ausuba in Puerto Rico.

There has also been a strong commitment towards Bomba Fusion. Groups such as Los Pleneros de la 21, and Viento De Agua have contributed greatly towards fusing Bomba and Plena with Jazz and other Genres. Yerbabuena has brought a popular cross over appeal. Abrante y La Tribu have made fusions with Hip Hop. Tambores Calientes, Machete Movement, and Ceiba have fused the genres with various forms of Rock and Roll.

Like other such traditions, bomba is now well documented on sites like YouTube, and on a few ethnographic documentary films.


Around 1900 plena emerged as a humble proletarian folk genre in the lower-class, largely Afro-Puerto Rican urban neighborhoods in San Juan, Ponce, and elsewhere. Plena subsequently came to occupy its niche in island music culture. In its quintessential form, plena is an informal, unpretentious, simple folksong genre, in which alternating verses and refrains are sung to the accompaniment of round, often homemade frame drums called panderetas (like tambourines without jingles), perhaps supplemented by accordion, guitar, or whatever other instruments might be handy. An advantage of the percussion arrangement is its portability, contributing to the plena's spontaneous appearance at social gatherings. Other instruments commonly heard in plena music are the cuatro, the maracas, and accordions.

The plena rhythm is a simple duple pattern, although a lead pandereta player might add lively syncopations. Plena melodies tend to have an unpretentious, "folksy" simplicity. Some early plena verses commented on barrio anecdotes, such as "Cortarón a Elena" (They stabbed Elena) or "Allí vienen las maquinas" (Here come the firetrucks). Many had a decidedly irreverent and satirical flavor, such as "Llegó el obispo" mocking a visiting bishop. Some plenas, such as "Cuando las mujeres quieren a los hombres" and "Santa María," are familiar throughout the island. In 1935 the essayist Tomás Blanco celebrated plena—rather than the outdated and elitist danza—as an expression of the island's fundamentally creole, Taino or mulatto racial and cultural character. Plenas are still commonly performed in various contexts; a group of friends attending a parade or festival may bring a few panderetas and burst into song, or new words will be fitted to the familiar tunes by protesting students or striking workers which has long been a regular form of protest from occupation and slavery. While enthusiasts might on occasion dance to a plena, plena is not characteristically oriented toward dance.

In the 1920s–30s plenas came to be commercially recorded, especially by Manuel "El Canario" Jimenez, who performed old and new songs, supplementing the traditional instruments with piano and horn arrangements. In the 1940s Cesar Concepción popularized a big-band version of plena, lending the genre a new prestige, to some extent at the expense of its proletarian vigor and sauciness. In the 1950s a newly envigorated plena emerged as performed by the smaller band of Rafael Cortijo and vocalist Ismael "Maelo" Rivera, attaining unprecedented popularity and modernizing the plena while recapturing its earthy vitality. Many of Cortijo's plenas present colorful and evocative vignettes of barrio life and lent a new sort of recognition to the dynamic contribution of Afro-Puerto Ricans to the island's culture (and especially music). This period represented the apogee of plena's popularity as a commercial popular music. Unfortunately, Rivera spent much of the 1960s in prison, and the group never regained its former vigor. Nevertheless, the extraordinary massive turnout for Cortijo's funeral in 1981 reflected the beloved singer's enduring popularity. By then, however, plena's popularity had been replaced by that of salsa, although some revivalist groups, such as Plena Libre, continue to perform in their own lively fashion, while "street" plena is also heard on various occasions.


External audio
You may listen to Graciela Rivera's interpretation of Fernández Juncos' version of the "La Borinqueña"" here.
You may listen to Luciano Quiñones piano interpretation of Tavárez's "Margarita"here
You may listen to Luciano Quiñones piano interpretation of Morel Campos' "No me toques" here
Main article: Danza
Manuel Gregorio Tavárez

By the late 1700s the country dance (French contredanse, Spanish contradanza) had come to thrive as a popular recreational dance, both in courtly and festive vernacular forms, throughout much of Europe, replacing dances such as the minuet. By 1800 a creolized form of the genre, called contradanza, was thriving in Cuba, and the genre also appears to have been extant, in similar vernacular forms, in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and elsewhere, although documentation is scanty. By the 1850s, the Cuban contradanza—increasingly referred to as danza—was flourishing both as a salon piano piece, or as a dance-band item to accompany social dancing, in a style evolving from collective figure dancing (like a square dance) to independent couples dancing ballroom-style (like a waltz, but in duple rather than ternary rhythm). According to local chroniclers, in 1845 a ship arrived from Havana, bearing, among other things, a party of youths who popularized a new style of contradanza/danza, confusingly called "merengue." This style subsequently became wildly popular in Puerto Rico, to the extent that in 1848 it was banned by the priggish Spanish governor Juan de la Pezuela. This prohibition, however, does not seem to have had much lasting effect, and the newly invigorated genre—now more commonly referred to as "danza"—went on to flourish in distinctly local forms. As in Cuba, these forms included the musics played by dance ensembles as well as sophisticated light-classical items for solo piano (some of which could subsequently be interpreted by dance bands). The danza as a solo piano idiom reached its greatest heights in the music of Manuel Gregorio Tavárez (1843–83), whose compositions have a grace and grandeur closely resembling the music of Chopin, his model. Achieving greater popularity were the numerous danzas of his follower, Juan Morel Campos (1857–96), a bandleader and extraordinarily prolific composer who, like Tavárez, died in his youthful prime (but not before having composed over 300 danzas). By Morel Campos' time, the Puerto Rican danza had evolved into a form quite distinct from that of its Cuban (not to mention European) counterparts. Particularly distinctive was its form consisting of an initial paseo, followed by two or three sections (sometimes called "merengues"), which might feature an arpeggio-laden "obbligato" melody played on the tuba-like bombardino (euphonium). Many danzas achieved island-wide popularity, including the piece "La Borinqueña", which is the national anthem of Puerto Rico. Like other Caribbean creole genres such as the Cuban danzón, the danzas featured the insistent ostinato called "cinquillo" (roughly, ONE-two-THREE-FOUR-five-SIX-SEVEN-eight, repeated).

The danza remained vital until the 1920s, but after that decade its appeal came to be limited to the Hispanophilic elite. The danzas of Morel Campos, Tavárez, José Quintón, and a few others are still performed and heard on various occasions, and a few more recent composers have penned their own idiosyncratic forms of danzas, but the genre is no longer a popular social dance idiom.

Puerto Rican pop

Much music in Puerto Rico falls outside the standard categories of "Latin music" and is better regarded as constituting varieties of "Latin World Pop." This category would include, for example, Ricky Martin (who had a #1 Hot 100 hit in the U.S. with "Livin' La Vida Loca" in 1999; the boy-band Menudo (with its changing personnel), Los Chicos, Las Cheris, AJ Davila, Salsa Kids and Chayanne.

External audio
You may listen to José Feliciano's "Light My Fire" here.


List of Reggaeton Artist {List of reggaeton musicians#Puerto Rico}

Puerto Rico is perhaps the single biggest center for production of reggaeton. The roots of reggaeton lie in the 1980s "reggae en español" of the Panamanian artist El General and certain songs by Puerto Rican rapper Vico C. In the early 1990s reggaeton coalesced as a more definitive genre, using the "Dem Bow" riddim derived from a Shabba Ranks song by that name, and further resembling Jamaican dancehall in its verses sung in simple tunes and stentorian style, and its emphasis—via lyrics, videos, and artist personas—on partying, dancing, boasting, "bling," and sexuality rather than weighty social commentary. While reggaeton may have commenced as a Spanish-language version of Jamaican dancehall, in the hands of performers like Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Don Omar and others, it soon acquired its own distinctive flavor and today might be considered the most popular dance music in the Spanish Caribbean, surpassing even salsa.

Caribbean influences


The bolero originally derived from Cuba, but by the 1920s-30s it was being not only enjoyed but also composed and performed by Puerto Ricans, including such outstanding figures as Rafael Hernández and Pedro Flores. There are no distinctively "Puerto Rican" features—such as singing "lelolai" or playing the cuatro—in their boleros, but it would be pointless to go on regarding the bolero solely as a "Cuban" genre; it is, of course, a Cuban genre, but since the 1920s it has also been an international genre, including a Puerto Rican one. The main differences are found in the musical arrangements and subject matter.


In the 1990s the most popular dance music in the island was merengue, as performed by visiting Dominican bands and a few locals such as Olga Tañon. Similar disagreements have been voiced about local rock bands, such as Fiel a la Vega, Puya, and Konfrontazion, that flourished in the 1980s-90s. Which continues to be very popular.

Guaracha and Salsa

Salsa is another genre whose form derived from the Cuban\Puerto Rican melding of genre, especially Cuban dance music of the 1950s—but which in the 1960s-70s became an international genre, cultivated with special zeal and excellence in Puerto Rico, and by New York Puerto Ricans. Forms such as the Charanga was hugely popular to Puerto Ricans and Newyoricans, indeed, rescued this music, which had been stagnating and isolated in Cuba itself in the 1960s, giving it new life, new social significance, and many new stylistic innovations. Salsa is the name acquired by the modernized form of Cuban\Puerto Rican-style dance music that was cultivated and rearticulated from the latter 1960s by Puerto Ricans in New York and, subsequently, in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. While salsa soon became an international genre, thriving in Colombia, Venezuela, and elsewhere, New York and Puerto Rico have remained its epicenters. Particularly prominent in the island itself were El Gran Combo, Sonora Ponceña, and Willie Rosario, as well as the more pop-oriented "salsa romántica" stars of the 1980s-90s. (For further information see the entry on "salsa music.")

Other popular newyorican and Puerto Rican exponents have been: Tito Puente (timbales and vibes player), Tito Rodríguez (guaracha and bolero singer), pianists Eddie Palmieri, Richie Ray and Papo Lucca, conguero Ray Barreto, trombonist and singer Willie Colón, and singers La India, Andy Montañez, Bobby Cruz, Cheo Feliciano, Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Ismael Rivera, Tito Nieves, Pete El Conde Rodríguez and Gilberto Santa Rosa, among others.

Classical music

The island hosts two main orchestras, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico and the Orquesta Filarmónica de Puerto Rico. The Casals Festival takes place annually in San Juan, drawing in classical musicians from around the world.

See also


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